Thanksgiving is the official season of gratitude: that old-fashioned, warm and fuzzy out-loud appreciation of our fellow humans. Most of us count our blessings for a day, then dust off the list a year from now.
But a ream of research makes the case that gratitude shouldn’t just be a seasonal affair. It’s stellar for your health; practicing gratitude is linked to better immunity and blood pressure and less loneliness, which comes with its own host of health detriments. It improves sleep and self-esteem. People who are grateful are more likely to exercise more and visit the doctor less. And even in our modern-day tech trap of social judging apps, they’re less likely to compare themselves to others.
Gratitude is the very stuff that makes social relationships possible and pleasurable. But like anything else that’s good for you, gratitude takes work and doesn’t always come naturally. Here are four science-backed ways to get more grateful.
Make sure it’s something you can do, not own. You probably already knew that experiences—things like vacations, concert tickets or nice meals out—make you happier than material purchases like gadgets or jewelry. But a series of new studies published in the journal finds that they make you more grateful, too. When people thought about past experiences they’d paid for, they used more thankful language than when they reflected on possessions. And in an economic game used in one study, they were also more likely to behave more generously and give more to others than those who reflected on possessions they’d bought.
The best part is that everyone benefits. “When people reflect on their experiential pursuits, they end up feeling grateful, but not necessarily grateful to a particular entity,” says study co-author Amit Kumar, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago. People feel fortunate, and because it’s a “diffuse, untargeted type of gratitude, they’re motivated to give back to people in general.”
One scientifically reliable way to nudge people toward gratitude is to have them write a grateful letter to someone else. Researchers recently had a group of therapy patients do this, while another group wrote deeply and expressively on their stressful experiences.
A month after the experiment ended, people who wrote grateful letters reported significantly better mental health than those who wrote expressively. The effect stuck around when researchers measured again after three months.
Writing a gratitude letter only takes about 15 minutes, according to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Use specific, concrete terms to describe what the person did, why you’re grateful and how your life has changed as a result. No need to write more than a page, but make sure to deliver it in person if you can and read it out loud.
It’s good to be grateful—but don’t forget who deserves the credit. In a recent study, researchers watched while couples expressed gratitude to each other, taking careful note of the language they used. The compliments were either other-praising—phrases that keep positive attention on the person, like “you go out of your way” and “I feel like you’re really good at that”—or self-beneficial, meaning the speaker framed the compliment in terms of how she benefited, such as “it let me relax” and “it makes me happy.”
The first kind was better by far. Those who received this kind of gratitude felt happier and more loving toward their partner.
Even though gratitude is an evolutionary tool to help people feel more connected, it can feel awkward to express. And won’t the targets of your gratitude feel kind of weird when you tell them how exactly much they mean to you?
That’s a common but unfounded fear, Kumar is finding in forthcoming research. “People tend to overestimate the awkwardness and underestimate how good the recipient of gratitude will feel,” he says. But the response to gratitude is “almost universally positive, even though we don’t always anticipate that it’s going to be beforehand.”
Mandy Oaklander at mandy.oaklander.